In this Year of Matthew, in the Season of Advent, we start with what is normally ignored: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Anointed, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” or – in the spirit of the King James Version of the Bible – “the Begats.” Eyes are undoubtedly rolling, and fingers poised to click out of here, but wait. The argument may seem ancient and arcane, but in a world where fundamentalist atheists insist that the historical Jesus is a figment of demented Christian imagination, Matthew 1:1-17 is far from irrelevant.
The Revised Common Lectionary Elves skip this section completely, so there are no approved scriptures associated with Matthew’s introductory salvo. However, clues to what Matthew may have been up to are readily available, thanks to Biblical scholarship, specifically the commentators in The Harper Collins Study Bible; John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels; The First Christmas by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan; and The Authentic Letters of Paul (the Scholars Version), by Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt of the Westar Institute.
The notes regarding Abraham, “the father of Isaac, and Isaac, the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers . . .” send us to Psalm 18 (never read in the three-year RSV cycle), and to Paul’s letter to the Galatians (chapters 3 and 4). The Psalm is attributed to King David, on the occasion of his victory over his enemies, specifically Saul. At the end, David says, “Great triumphs [God] gives to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.” Just to way-lay any suggestion of mysterious prophecy on the part of David that may be lurking in traditional Christian minds, the king was referring to himself and his descendants as anointed by God forever. (See 2 Samuel 7:11b-16.) Matthew’s list begins and ends with the one anointed (Messiah) – designated, ordained, chosen – as the servant of God.
Borg and Crossan suggest that the writers of the synoptic gospels were setting up a subversive parallel between the divinity of Jesus and the divinity of the Roman emperor. First Matthew makes clear that Jesus, the Anointed, was a human being, with a clear royal lineage. Then he throws in the mysterious numerology of David’s Hebrew name, which adds up to 14. This kind of augury was vital to the political and religious power of the Roman emperors. The holy pantheon of the Caesars began with the Trojan wars, over a thousand years before the birth of Augustus. Matthew says there were 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the exile in Babylon, and 14 from the Babylonian exile to the birth of the Messiah: about two thousand years. The Jewish Messiah has a longer and higher pedigree than the Roman Emperor.
Matthew’s genealogical litany is particularly subversive when the role of the women is considered. Under Roman law, the man of the house had life-and-death control over the women and children. Yet at every major turn in the Hebrew story, an alien, pagan woman carries out the will of God for the people. In the midst of Matthew’s list, are four named women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and “the wife of Uriah,” aka Bathsheba. Throughout the Old Testament, while the men are going off to war and generally breaking covenant with God at every opportunity, God’s real plan for the people gets carried out by women – and not quiet, submissive, law-following women. These are women who take their destiny (and the destiny of the people) into their own hands.
Briefly, Tamar (a Canaanite pagan) should have been married off to her (Israelite) husband’s brother, after her husband was struck dead by God (see Genesis 38). A couple more cousins manage to avoid the family duty to take care of her. She finally pretends to be a prostitute and bears twins to Judah for the furtherance of the tribe – and ultimately, the Messiah himself. Rahab was another Canaanite pagan woman (and probably a temple priestess, although she is called a prostitute), who let the Israelite spies into Jericho. We all know what happened to Jericho.
Ruth was a “Moabite,” who returned to the land of Judah with Naomi. As she gleans in his field, she manages to be following Boaz, who turns out to be “someone in whose sight I may find favor.” Indeed she did, with the connivance of Naomi, and became the mother of Jesse, who was the father of David – the greatest King in the history of the Jewish people. Twenty-first century Christian fundamentalists might be surprised to know that Jesus was the direct descendent of an illegal alien.
Finally, in the most infamous story of betrayal and sin, Bathsheba became the wife of King David, and the mother of the wisest ruler of all time – King Solomon. The lineage ends with Joseph, a descendant of King David, marrying a woman accused of adultery, who is the mother of the Anointed. Matthew is careful to say that Joseph was the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus. But he does not say Joseph was the father of Jesus.
This is not about sexual politics and feminism as understood in the 21st century. This is about the wild unpredictable nature of God’s realm. God’s rule is not the rule of human law, human convention, or the normal course of human social organization. God’s rule is radical fairness. Whoever honors God’s Covenant of distributive justice-compassion is honored by God. God does not care what your lineage may be, or whether you are a member of the 12 Tribes. “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what is required of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8.
Without going into the context for Paul’s argument in his letter to the Galatians, here are the relevant quotes from Galatians 3 and 4 (Scholar’s Version):
In effect, then, the law served as our disciplinarian until God’s Anointed came, so that we would become acceptable to God on the basis of our complete confidence in God. Now that this mature confidence in God can be ours, we no longer have need for a disciplinarian. Indeed you are all now God’s adult offspring through the kind of confidence exemplified by God’s Anointed, Jesus. So everyone of you who has been baptized into solidarity with God’s Anointed has become invested with the status of God’s Anointed. You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer “male and female.” Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus. Moreover, if you now belong to God’s Anointed, that also makes you Abraham’s offspring and – as promised – his heirs. Gal. 3:24-29.
Those of you who want to live under law, tell me: Don’t you hear what the law says? Scripture says that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. The difference was that the son of the slave was born naturally, the son of the free woman through God’s promise. This is all allegorical: these women represent two covenants. The one from Mount Sinai, who bears slave children, corresponds to Hagar. This Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; but she also corresponds to the present Jerusalem; she is in slavery with her children. In contrast, it’s the heavenly Jerusalem that is free – that’s the one who is our mother. In fact, scripture says: “Celebrate you barren woman without children, break out into shouting, you without labor pains, because the barren woman will have more children than does the woman with a husband.”
Now you, friends, are just like Isaac, you are children born by God’s promise. But just as it was back then, so too now: the child conceived naturally tries to harass the one conceived by God’s power. Yet, what does scripture say? “Expel the slave woman and her son; because the slave woman’s son will not share the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” The conclusion, my friends, is that we are not children of the slave woman but of the free woman. Gal. 4:21-31.
All of us who have been “baptized into solidarity with God’s Anointed [have] become invested with the status of God’s Anointed.” That means, all who have signed onto the new Covenant to live in God’s non-violent realm of distributive justice-compassion, can claim the same promise David claimed for himself and his descendants. We are all anointed, designated, ordained into the work. We are not slaves to the corrupting influence of empire.
Empire lives in the halls of elected, democratic government; in social institutions such as organized religions and health-care providers; and in corporations of every description. The counter to the corruption that is inevitable in the normalcy of human life is the wild, unpredictable spirit that blows where it will. That unpredictable spirit is invoked whenever anyone willingly abandons self-interest in the service of radical fairness: the participants in Wikileaks; the travelers who opt out of full-body airport scans; the employee who blows the whistle on illegality; the child who confronts the bully. Liberation comes from outside the box; not full-grown from the head of Zeus.
Begotten, not made.